It's odd to hear the Detroit Red Wings sound like underdogs, but that's what happens to seventh-seeded teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Rather than the usual role of favorites, the victorious Red Wings – the Western Conference's seventh seed – flew home after eliminating the Anaheim Ducks on Sunday night knowing they'd be right back to underdogs just as quickly as their plane's tires touched ground in Detroit.
Just that quickly, the page was turned on their upset of the second-seeded Ducks in Game 7 of an exciting Western Conference Quarterfinals series. Just that quickly, they shifted to the next challenge: facing the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks in the conference semifinals, a team they didn't beat in four games this year.
"We don't think about that much," Detroit captain Henrik Zetterberg said of the underdog role. "You just go out there and play. There's not that big of a difference nowadays between the first seed and the eighth seed, or even the first seed and the teams that don't make the playoffs. I think it's more the fans and the media that feel that more than us."
Detroit is clinging to the fact that three of the four losses to Chicago this season went past regulation, with two ending in shootouts. The other game, however, was a 7-1 blowout loss at Joe Louis Arena on Easter Sunday. Gordie Howe was in the building celebrating his 85th birthday, but the Blackhawks rolled their hosts from the Motor City.
Zetterberg didn't play that game, but Chicago was missing Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa. The Red Wings do appear to be a different team from that time, though. Their inexperienced young players have matured quickly and the desperation has been part of Detroit's game for about
a month. The Red Wings had to clinch a playoff berth on the season's last day and then faced elimination against the Ducks in Game 6 and Game 7.
"It [feels] like when our backs are up against the wall we play the best," Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard said. "By no means are we probably the most talented Red Wings team in the history of the organization, but every single guy in here works hard and in the end that goes a long way."
It also helps to have superstars like Pavel Datsyuk and Zetterberg leading the charge. Both wound up in the top 10 in points for the first round. Zetterberg scored three goals and added five assists, including the game-winner in overtime of Game 6, while Datsyuk added two goals and five assists.
After they'd played most of the season and the first six games of the opening series on the same line, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock split them up in the deciding game – putting Zetterberg at center of the second line and keeping Datsyuk in the middle of the top line.
Whether Babcock keeps it that way remains to be seen, but it serves to show that he does have options – not unlike Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, whose team is lauded for its impressive depth at all positions.
"It gives me an option, we'll see," he said Monday afternoon. "We're going to get prepared. We were on the plane [when we decided to split the] and we will [talk] again [Tuesday]. We'll have a plan by the time we get to Chicago."
One option Babcock won't have is putting speedy center Darren Helm into the lineup. Helm missed the majority of the regular season and the first playoff series with a back injury and Babcock ruled him out for this series, as well. There's a chance veteran forward Drew Miller (fractured finger) might be ready to return if the series lasts long enough, but the Red Wings also say they're ready to roll with the guys they have now.
Chicago has won seven straight against Detroit and is 9-0-1 over the past two years, but the "underdogs" are feeling quietly confident again.
"They beat us all four times [this season] … I read that on the way in here," Babcock said. "Three times there were shootouts or overtime. You got to play real hockey now in those situations. They thumped us the one time on Easter Sunday. That stuff is all over now."